Much is at stake in the Venezuelan legislative elections. After months of uncertainty, and amidst intense domestic and international pressures, in late June the National Election Board (CNE: Consejo Nacional Electoral) set 6 December as the date for electing the 167 members of the unicameral National Assembly.
In Venezuela the legislative elections are held on a date different from presidential elections. The presidential elections were held in April 2013 to elect the successor to Hugo Chávez; Nicolás Maduro emerged the winner by a very close margin (1.4%) in a tense environment that was called into question.
Chavista hegemony at risk
Since the year 2000, Chavismo has maintained permanent control of the Assembly; this predominance became even greater in the 2005 elections when the opposition made the mistake of not participating. The most recent legislative elections were held in 2010, when the pro-government forces, through outrageous reforms to the electoral system aimed improving its own representation, obtained 99 of the current 165 legislators. This wide majority enabled the Chávez administration and now the Maduro administration to govern with considerable control and a wide margin of discretion, a situation that could change as of January 2016, when members of the legislature should take office. At this time the Assembly’s credibility is very low; nonetheless, it is a key institution for the debate and for political control, adopting laws—including the budget—and designating the members of the principal branches of government.
For the first time in many years the pro-Chávez forces risk losing control of the Assembly. Among the factors that could have an adverse impact on the administration are the serious economic situation (high inflation, undersupply, corruption) and social situation (high level of crime) that Venezuela is experiencing, as well as the marked attrition of support for Maduro as reflected in the polls. According to Datanálisis, 84 per cent of the population feels that the country is doing poorly and only 13 per cent consider the situation to be good.
In response to this adverse situation, and given the fear of suffering an electoral disaster, Chavismo has stepped up political repression, unfairly jailing several opposition leaders (Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, among others). In addition, during the week of 20 July, the Office of the Comptroller General (Contraloría General) announced that several of the members of the opposition have been disqualified from holding public office, including María Corina Machado and former governor Pablo Pérez. In response to these arbitrary measures the MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática) announced protest marches and an international campaign to denounce the situation before the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations.
Electoral integrity and international observation
The integral nature and credibility of this important electoral process depends on several criminal and essential factors. First, the government should put an end to political repression in all its forms (including by releasing the political prisoners), the harassment of the few independent media outlets that still exist, and the administrative measures aimed at hindering participation by the opposition. Second, the CNE should act with total impartiality and ensure fair conditions throughout the election campaign, which presupposes avoiding the “inclined playing field” effect in favor of the pro-government political forces. Third, one must reestablish the principles of proportional representation enshrined in the Constitution and revise the current setup of the electoral districts to block the exaggerated disproportion between the number of votes obtained and the number of representatives elected, as occurred in the 2010 legislative elections. And fourth, the CNE should ensure genuine international observation, which should not be limited to the “mission of accompaniment” sent by UNASUR. In this connection, the OAS and the European Union, among other international organizations, should be invited to send their respective electoral observation missions with sufficient lead time to observe all stages of the electoral process.
Since 2006 Venezuela has impeded the presence of electoral observation missions except for the “accompaniment” missions of UNASUR, whose working methodology (to date) differs significantly from that of the OAS, an organization that has deployed more than 200 electoral observation missions, and with very few exceptions, today it enjoys credibility and recognition in this area.
In a conversation at the Carter Center with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, and the Group of Friends of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and me, Almagro reiterated OAS’s interest in observing these elections and said he disagreed with the political prohibitions that have been imposed in Venezuela.
If weeks go by and the CNE does not send a formal invitation to the OAS or denies its participation, the Secretary General should propose (invoking Article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter) undertaking a collective assessment of the critical political situation in Venezuela. After all, as Rubén Perina (a former OAS official) states and quite rightly so, “the danger of an alteration in the democratic order, in terms of an election fraud or when Maduro announces that he will be the first one to take to the streets if the opposition wins….”
My opinion. I fully agree with the request by the 27 former heads of state of the Ibero-American states on the need for the legislative elections to be free, fair, and impartial, and calling for the elections to be held in a climate of absolute confidence and transparency. In effect, legislative and credible elections are the best mechanism for freeing up the political dynamics, diminishing the acute polarization Venezuela is suffering, and going forward in the area of reconciliation. To the contrary, elections whose results are not respected by the parties could dangerously aggravate the already delicate and complex situation in Venezuela.
Ahead of the 6 December elections, the climate is going to be tense and complex, and no doubt there will be any number of obstacles and challenges. Given this outlook, the CNE (which currently has low level of citizen confidence) should act with absolute impartiality and ensure, through the different stages of the electoral process, full respect for civil and political rights, transparency, and fairness. If it does not proceed in keeping with these principles, the legitimacy and credibility of the elections will be in jeopardy.
The countries of the region, for their part, cannot continue to turn a blind eye or maintain a complicit silence in relation to the Venezuelan question. Both the OAS and UNASUR have a responsibility to make their best efforts to help ensure free, transparent, and fair elections that make it possible to find an institutional solution to the serious crisis and help regain full respect for democracy in Venezuela.